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Story Publication logo June 4, 2020

Portraits of a Pandemic: Joining a Broader Movement to Fight for Tenant Rights

Leslie D. Callahan, pastor of St. Paul's Baptist Church, poses for a portrait, at her church in North Philadelphia on April 8. Image by David Maialetti / The Philadelphia Inquirer. United States, 2020.

Women and people of color are being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. The 19th and The...

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Shani Akilah of The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative organized fellow tenants at a six-unit apartment building in southwest Philadelphia. Image by Charles Fox / The Philadelphia Inquirer. United States, 2020.
Shani Akilah of The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative organized fellow tenants at a six-unit apartment building in southwest Philadelphia. Image by Charles Fox / The Philadelphia Inquirer. United States, 2020.

Shani Akilah Robin started the year fighting housing displacement in Philadelphia, both as the cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and as a frustrated tenant living on the third floor of a six-unit stone-facade building in the southwest part of the city.

Robin said that there were mice in the two-bedroom apartment and that a kitchen cabinet fell off the wall and onto Robin's head. In protest, Robin, who uses they/them pronouns, refused to pay rent until repairs were made and concerns were addressed.

Then the pandemic hit and paying rent was not just about a protest — it wasn't an option.

The paid trainings Robin conducts "slowed down to zero," as clients were all social distancing and in-person training became impossible. Grants that were pending were on hold.

"Anything that me and my family are living off of is simply what we had in the bank account, which for a lot of working people is really not that much," Robin, 36, said.

As the coronavirus crisis worsened in Philadelphia, Robin and the cooperative watched the national conversation around rent strikes and decided to join the broader movement.

"It was really a call to action, knowing that at any day, it could be me as well," Robin said.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America, with nearly a quarter of its citizens living below the federal poverty line and more than one in 10 Philadelphians in deep poverty. About 47% of residents are renters, with 54% paying at least 30% of their income in rent.

In mid-March, Philadelphia City Council enacted a moratorium on evictions, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also declared that no landlord or bank could evict tenants for at least two weeks due to failure to pay.

In Robin's building, where they have lived for six years, there were neighbors who worked frontline jobs in delivery and the gig economy, nurses and young people whose hours were being cut. Robin sent a letter to everyone in the building ahead of April 1 to gauge their feelings amid the looming public health threat and their financial situation, as well as their interest in a collective rent strike.

At first, Robin said, only one other unit responded, but slowly others began reaching out. Within days, two-thirds of the building replied and a tenants' council was formed. At the end of March, four renters sent a letter to landlord Eugene Smith outlining their rights and informing him that they would update him about their ability to return to work.

On April 6, the landlord responded in a letter not only to Robin and the neighbors, but to his tenants across the city, stating his intention to work with them during the crisis. He asked tenants who are able to pay to do so and said that payment plans would be available for those who will need to catch up.

Smith said in an interview Thursday that he is also in a bind, as a property owner whose mortgage is due regardless of his tenants' ability to pay.

"It's unfortunate, but as soon as that situation is over, they're going to have to catch up," Smith said, adding that he is paying for insurance and utilities as well as the mortgages on more than two dozen properties across the city.

Robin said the cooperative will continue to fight for housing rights during the pandemic.

"This pandemic has only exposed the fact that housing insecurity … was in and of itself a pandemic in this country. Everything has really just exacerbated the issues that have already been there," Robin said. "This is about human rights."

This series, Portraits of a Pandemic, is a coproduction between The Philadelphia Inquirer and The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom covering gender, politics, and policy. This work is supported by the Pulitzer Center and The Lenfest Institute.

COVID-19 Update: The connection between local and global issues–the Pulitzer Center's long standing mantra–has, sadly, never been more evident. We are uniquely positioned to serve the journalists, news media organizations, schools and universities we partner with by continuing to advance our core mission: enabling great journalism and education about underreported and systemic issues that resonate now–and continue to have relevance in times ahead. We believe that this is a moment for decisive action. Learn more about the steps we are taking.